missed demeanor in nine parts
somebody out there in that cabin--not hiding, but living in
it. Yeah, and there's a fucking man in the moon, too. The
more I thought about it, the more it pissed me off. It was his job,
so why wouldn't he do it? Some fucking poli-sci bullshit about
anarchy and the wheels coming off. Something Jack and Mr. Popeye
picked up at the U. of fuckin' I. That it all begins with
disobedience. I'd pissed on plenty of things myself--my
old man's Chevy being the first. He'd always told me,
"Boy, if they can't sell it or fuck it, generally they
got no use for it." And to show him what I thought of his
philosophy, I'd let that yellow stream go at the candy apple
red, back quarter panel of his shined up Impala. Some fucking philosophy.
I've pissed on other cars, in alleys. On books? Sure, we'd
done it before. Who knows how many? Jack thought it up. Four dozen
men across the country going into bookstores, pissing on copies
of The Senator's latest autobiography. The cops hadn't
caught on for two weeks. By that time, the pissed-on books had started
hitting E-Bay. Copies were selling for ten, twelve, twenty times
their value. Against our best hopes, we were increasing the value
of the books. The Senator was being interviewed by three of the
four networks. Now Jack wanted to make it expressly political.
"It makes your dick hard just to think about it, don't
it, Junior?" Jack whispered into the telephone. "All
those guys. Piss hitting the back covers. I'm sending you
to the Rook's. Over in the old hillbilly part of town."
I wouldn't tell him, but it did turn me on. The sound of unzipping
in public. The zipper. Tooth by tooth. I caught a cab and headed
for Rook's, a place that mainly sold remaindered novels and
biographies. I reached down, checked to make sure my zipper was
still up. The driver was looking in the mirror. I gave him the finger.
I know why I love taxis--yes, subways are only for when you
are feeling sexy.
"I know why I love taxis--yes, subways are only for when
you are feeling sexy."
That was what she told me as we stood on the platform. She'd
been saving the line for who knows how long; for dramatic effect,
for a time like this. She thought it was literary, smart. Just the
thing to say before boarding a monorail bound for Tomorrow World.
I knew it was a line from a book. She loved books. That's
how we got where we were. But for me, this is where "we"
ended, and where I knew I was through with "it" and
"them." Through with the literary; done with living
the life of letters and most certainly finished with books.
"The end," I mumbled walking along the empty platform.
THE END. Yes, the end to living for the publisher's advance
copies, gimme extras from the Random House rep, and home office
memos listing grounds for a merit-based pay raise or better inventory
management. I had been fooling myself. Books had ruined my life.
The bookstore had only made it worse. Mickey and the gang made this
abundantly clear. I had been ambivalent about the trip to see the
Magic but, as always, willing to compromise. The assistant managers'
training seminar drummed that into my skull. "DON"T
STARE DOWN THAT GIFT HORSE." I had made the session pay dividends.
The ITR at my store was best in our chain, tops in the region. The
way I looked at it, I was helping America read; fighting Prime Time.
This was like social work or higher education. It was a good thing.
But the work was hard. Staying on top of the numbers took long hours,
especially during the holiday season. Veronica helped. She and I
built our bonds as coworkers during the retail rush, 2002. I knew
she was happy for the overtime; I was salary and liked the company.
Its results were predictable: we were each other's seasonally
adjusted bonus. The manager of the month trip to Disney was gravy.
Once we got to Orlando we met the other winners. People, many couples,
just like us. We all served THE CHAIN and pushed the product. Some,
like Veronica, even enjoyed reading or literature or books. Whatever.
That crowd was easy to spot. They were the ones with the thick books
at the breakfast bar or by the pool. As we took our place among
the bookmonger elite, I decided to start calling her "Ronnie."
She must not have liked it. By our third day with the Mouse, she
stopped talking to me and spent most of her time discussing "Literature" with a central district general rep Cleveland. All that left for
us was an awkward flight back to Columbus.
But I did not despair for long. I realized that I was self-consciously
drunk on Pleasure Island, Walt's idea of an adult play zone,
shrinking from the Mouse's security details. It was from this
vantage point that I saw my engagement with the book world had been
a disappointing farce. The scotch, rocks, and Lake Buena Vista brought
me to see that I had been set up to be undone by the falsehoods
of the literary realm.
I was a sap. And Ronnie probably knew it all along.
I had thought that my bookstore manager's job was a real step
on the path to a writing job, a chance meeting and a well-placed
word with Mr. Barnes or Mr. Noble or, hell, Stanley Fish on a book
tour, and then I would be as good as any other published author
or cultural worker. But that had not brought me a pot to piss in.
There was a way to show Veronica, THE CHAIN, the publishing industry
at large. All of them. But more importantly, they would know and
remember me. My actions would have no choice but to say, "Look
at you. Look at what he did to you. Look at you. Goddamn it. Look
"Look at you. Look at what he did to you. Look at you. Goddamn
it. Look at you," he said.
What did he do to me? I asked him. You are saying all of this rather
enthusiastically, but I don't see. The truth is--he didn't
Every time I walk into a bookstore now--the moment I cross
the threshold as a matter of fact--I feel the need to defecate.
Almost instantly. I mean almost instantly I feel the need. Others
I know have described a similar feeling. I mean, what I'm
saying is that I'm not the only one. It's the moment
you pass the threshold and you suddenly get the urge. You feel the
need to grab some reading matter and head straight for the back.
Where the can is. Depending on what reading material it was that
you grabbed, you may want to end up using it to wipe your ass or
you may not. But the initial feeling is inescapable.
Maybe it was from all the years I actually worked in one of those
places. When the manager left and I was in charge, all hell tended
to start breaking loose. I'd let the teenaged clerks who worked
with me smoke weed in the back room, and I would smoke it with them.
I would take the sleeping bag from the trunk of my car and sleep
my hangover off in the backroom under a shelf. We read the porno
magazines and neglected the customers. Still punched in on the time
clock, I'd tell some pimply kid to watch the store and I'd
go ride around town for a couple of hours. There was an older woman--a
housewife--who worked at the store a few nights a week, and
she started getting friendly. She told me that her husband wouldn't
fuck her and I started getting the picture and before I knew what
was happening I was fucking her--I'd fuck her on the
floor, in the backroom, of course. Later, she told me those days
were some of the only truly life-filled ones she'd ever known,
and when I moved away, not too long after that, she acted all upset
Popeye would always come up with one hare-brained scheme after another,
and was always thinking that he was out to change the world. He
was a terrorist of sorts but of a different stripe, and something
of a legend in his own mind. He believed that the crust of the earth
was covered with 5 billion creeping crawling lice (and growing)
and that purely mental sabotage could rule the day in a way that
might be different from just throwing bombs and blowing stuff up.
In my opinion he was never understanding that the way to actually
make a difference was to realize that there wasn't any difference
to be made. The facts of the case can never get at the heart of
the matter, he once said to me. I asked him what the fuck he was
I walked into the bookstore and felt, all of a sudden, that I had
to take a shit, of course. There she stood, and it appeared that
in all the years between, she had never left her post behind the
register. It was her and me again. This was the day of the boy,
male and female.
But this was the day of the boy. Male and female, they were lined
up to buy their coffees next door. As if it all were so fucking
easy. The boy goes in and asks them if they've got a book
called Our Nation. He finds some guy who's got a pen in his
pocket--some sign of authority. Says to him, "You got
a book called . . .?" And it turns out they got fifteen fucking
books called Our Nation and which fucking one of them are you supposed
to piss on?
It made me dry up inside. Made me want to kill Jack. He was feeding
me cans of Schlitz seven hours later.
"Where should I begin?" I asked.
"Well, you could begin by admitting that you're just
a pawn, that you can't stop yourself," Jack laughed.
"We just sent you down to Rook's to see if you had the
nerve. Mr. Popeye was watching you from behind that rack of sci
fi all along."
"I'm no pawn. I could go over there right now and bring
an end to your novelist of truth and beauty. That and all his keen
As I said it, I turned the book nervously over in my lap. The guy's
picture grinned up at me. I was alss wondering what Mr. Popeye had
about wanting to see me expose myself in some remote corner under
the PHILOSOPHY AND OVERSIZED RELIGION sign.
"Why not fucken just put this guy in the ground?" I
asked. "I'm not going back into that store for anybody--least
of all, Mr. Popeye."
"Now what you want to kill that man for, you can't eat
him, can you? And you want Mr. Popeye to start gutting us all with
"Now what you want to kill him for, you can't eat him,
can you? You Mr. Popeye to start gutting us all with that automatic?"
Prakeesh was right. We were hosed. This bold plan was going wrong
fast. It was nearly out of hand, but now there was no going back.
We had been spotted by the night manger. He was sure to leak our
descriptions to the police. I was pissed. I wanted to fight this
literary sickness, one drop at a time. But now we were in new territory,
"Quick!" I said. "Grab the feet. We're about
to do something poetic."
We got the night manager bound and into a position that they would
understand. They would know and see that there was something larger
at work here. Placing him face down, we put the manager's
nose in a copy of something from the self-help section. I always
thought times unexpected duress called for a little Leo Buscaglia.
We left his hands and feet to rest on piles of paperbacks--flavor
of the month stuff--the bulk of which were copies of the Kathy
Hepinstall bestseller, The Absence of Nectar. This was to let them
know that we weren't playing and knew what time it was. I
balanced copies of a stock and personal finance guide along his
backside. This would let them know we really meant business.
I turned to Prakeesh and asked him if he was ready. He hadn't
spoken since I had cracked the clerk in the head with that copy
of the latest Eisenhower biography, the one with the flyleaf endorsement
by Walter Cronkite. Prakeesh just stared at me as I grabbed for
"I said," this time slowly, in what I liked to call
special English, "are YOU ready?"
It was then that Popeye came through the door.
"What the fuck is all this?" he said. "What is
going on? It's been almost an hour. This piss-up should have
been done and we should have been home thirty minutes ago."
He looked down and then back at me. For once words failed him.
"You want to join in on this one? The P-man and I were just
about to spray this one down. But as always, your donation's
"Wait a minute," Popeye stammered. "You've
taken it somewhere else. This better not be what I think it is.
What's under them books?"
"Things got out of hand. What do you think?"
"That you are a sick fuck, that's what. What's
your problem? Some kind of a nut job?"
Pointing at Popeye and Prakeesh I heard myself saying in a shrill
tone, "Me? Nut job? And you, you brought me here, goddamn
bastard clodhopper! Bastard, you! Son of a bitch, you! And him too!"
"And you, you brought me here, goddamn bastard clodhopper!
Bastard, you! Son of a bitch, you! And him too!"
She was shouting it at me. I had gotten her into another bookstore--a
different chain--on the other side of town. I felt her up in
the car on the way over, and it was just like the old days. My dad
once said to me "Older women are grateful." And it was
hard to dispute that claim with this one; it was exactly the case.
On the way over I had told her about Popeye--all his dramas
and his dreams, all his schemes he was always trying to architecture.
She got upset, and acted as if it were Popeye who had stolen me
away from her. As if I had left the middle west and moved to the
coast in order merely to find him. She started saying about how
I could have taken her with me and I was explaining how--of
course--it never could have worked, and then I let her know.
Clearly, something had happened to her during the years I had been
away. I guess it was that schmuck of a husband of hers, but I kept
shouting at her, "If he is such an asshole then why do you
stay with him? And why did you marry him all those years ago!?"
When we got there I took the book--you know which one I mean--and
threw it onto the floor and was about to commence. She was hanging
all over me and I could tell she wanted to get another look at it,
but it was not long before Popeye appeared walking down one of the
aisles stacked with books, coming out of the back room with a cigar
in his mouth. His fly undone and blood all over his hands.
Truly, though, I had thought Popeye was a long way from here, and
it was after all kind of a shock to see him.
"Come in and mill around," he intoned, grinning around
the cigar, raising his bloodstained hands, and she had stepped behind
me and was watching him with far more alarm than I. "And ask
him how he got it and if it hurt.
"As if he knowed or cared."
"Come in and mill around and ask him how he got it and if
it hurt!" I shouted into the payphone.
Jack uh-huh'ed me as if he knowed or cared. I was trying to
explain to him how we'd gone into the Rook's, me and
Mr. Popeye, and how Mr. Popeye had started chatting up this blonde
in a long, chocolate coat. But the guy behind the counter was nervous--watching
me, Mr. Popeye, the woman.
"Hold on a minute, then we'll do this thing right,"
Mr. Popeye had told me, but I'd found the book and was getting
ready to drop it down when the clerk came over the counter with
a baseball bat. Split Mr. Popeye's head open.
Jack yawned. Behind his voice, the sheets rustled.
"That Junior?" the woman asked. "Did you tell
him not to fuck it up this time?"
Jack gathered his breath.
"You need to go back into that store. Don't--" he began.
"You tell all that to fucking Movieline," I said. "I'm
not out for the celebrity in this. And make your whore lay off me,
"Make your whore lay off me, Jack." I must have said
that silently to myself a thousand times. Prakeesh brought that
girl along for the ride. She would not shut up. Her questions and
comments were incensed. What was worse was her voice, a high-pitched
Prakeesh said she was interested in our work. Claimed that she too
hated the book and its many guises. She was supposedly a sworn foe
of all things literary, preferring deeds over words. That lie was
already unraveling. I can't say that Mr. Popeye or the others
bought it. I sure didn't.
I didn't think that it was okay that she do a ride along with
us like some kind of graduate student or understudy. I tried to
ignore her, but still her why's and how come's kept
Finally Popeye had enough.
"Clamp it, racket-jaw. We're almost there."
The girl's mouth snapped shut at the sound of Popeye's
Prakeesh and I were the last drop. Our job was going to be a Borders
at the new mall. He had drawn the literary number--Maya Angelou
or Jimmy Carter. Poets supreme. My assignment would be in the biography
section. Someone had a new piece on Ted Turner and it was all mine.
We would have a whole new layer of security to contend with after
our unveiling at THE CHAIN. The night manager was shook, but the
story had been hushed up and kept out of the paper. Even so, we
figured that we we'd be up against some plainclothes dicks
and surveillance cameras.
I felt a little nervous ticking as we pulled towards the parking
lot at the new mall. But they were a good kind of nerves. The ones
that made you feel as if you had all darkness and night to roll
in and curse and vomit and a neck beside you vibrating like a lyre.
"If you had all darkness and night to roil in and curse and
vomit and a neck beside you vibrating like a lyre. . .
"Or like a liar. . .
"If you had all that, you would do it, wouldn't you?
"If you had just one more chance, do you think you would take
it? Could you? Would you ever be brave enough?"
She wouldn't stop asking me.
"The day I see you grow up and act like a man," she
said, "will be the day I believe it. If not too distracted
by hell freezing over and pigs flying, that is."
I had never realized the way this person could actually affect me.
Popeye was where he was now and always would be, it seemed.
Her and I were just driving. Headed toward the coast one more time
again, except this time she was coming along. I thought it was over,
but she knew I was wrong.
"It's what he always told you, isn't it?"
she said. "You never knew I knew it, but I knew it all along."
She repeated. Pointing into the distance out the car window. "There's
somebody out there in that cabin. Not hiding.
"Living in it."